Merrily We Roll Along is a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and a musical loosely based on it by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth. The original play opened on Broadway on September 29, 1934 and dealt with a character who has moved from being an idealist in his youth to losing those ideals as he reaches middle age. What made the play unusual was that the action of the play moved backward in time, so that the first scene was the last to take place chronologically, and the last scene was the earliest to occur.
Sondheim and Furth took the basic structure and overall theme of the original play, but updated it to the years from 1955 to 1980. It now concerned a man named Franklin Shepard who, in 1980, is a successful film producer who made his name as a composer of Broadway musicals and who has become cynical and jaded, losing his friends, including his longtime collaborator, Charley Kringas. We go backwards through his life and see how Frank has become the man he is now.
The musical Merrily We Roll Along had a troubled preview period, marred by several critical reviews published prior to the official Broadway opening on November 16, 1981. It ran for only 16 performances. There have been several attempts at reviving the show, some of them more successful than others. Its most successful post-Broadway runs include a limited run at the York Theatre Off-Broadway on May 26, 1994 which played for 54 sold-out performances, and a run in London at the Donmar Warehouse which opened on December 1, 2001, which ran for 79 performances and won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Musical, Best Actor, and Best Actress. Major productions were also mounted at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, California, and the Leicester Haymarket Theatre in Britain. Several of the show's songs have become standards, including "Not a Day Goes By", "Good Thing Going", "Old Friends", and "Our Time."
For a legendary "flop" show, Merrily We Roll Along has the unusual distinction of having three cast recordings: the original Broadway cast, York Theatre cast, and Leicester Haymarket cast recordings are all available on CD.
The song "Merrily We Roll Along", or at least its first seven notes which correspond to its title, became known as an instrumental theme tune for the Warner Bros. cartoon series called Merrie Melodies. The song is actually an old folk tune, and the pertinent portion of its lyrics are:
Because of its simple melody, the song is often used as an early playing exercise for people learning to play the piano.
In the United States the same melody is used for the nursery rhyme Mary had a little lamb.